Flipping Latkes

My first introduction to latkes, those little patties of fried potato deliciousness, came soon after my mother and stepfather got married. I don’t remember if it was our very first December as a family, or if it was a couple of years later, but I know that Bubbie (my stepfather’s mother) spent all day making them – one of the rare times she ventured into our kitchen for anything more than hot water.

She peeled and shredded and fried for hours, and we got to eat the results.

Now, I’d thought I knew what potato pancakes were, because my grandfather, pancake guru that he was, used to make pancakes that were either part mashed potato, or part leftover baked potato (whatever was available) mixed with regular batter. I remember loving it when I bit into a chunk of potato.

But these were the real thing, the pure thing. Not just potato pancakes, but pancakes made entirely from potato (well, maybe a dash of milk, a bit of flour, seasonings, and an egg). The point is, I was expecting something more like the pancakes I’d grown up with, and less like a really tasty, far less oily (no, really) version of an Arby’s potato cake.

Bubbie never made latkes for us again – from scratch. All subsequent acknowledgements of Hanukkah involved help from the nice people at Manischewitz and their onion-flavored mix (it comes in gluten free, too). We still had applesauce and sour cream, but there was a lot less work.

Since then, I’ve made latkes from scratch exactly once, and let me assure you that once was absolutely enough. I cheated and used a food processor, but then, who wouldn’t? (I also had a minion who did a good portion of the peeling, showing off his skills with a paring knife in the process. Never, ever, try to make latkes for a couple of dozen people without the assistance of a minion. This is essential.

I’m not Jewish, but that doesn’t mean I can’t like Jewish foods (I’m not Thai, Lebanese, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, French or Cajun either, but I like all of those foods – I’m a polyglot when it comes to cuisine.), so last year I bought a couple of boxes of latke mix. I made some at home, and brought the rest with me when we went to visit my parents in Mexico. I don’t remember if it was Christmas night (because we’d had a huge brunch and weren’t hungry until pretty late at night), or one of the others, but we had a lovely late-night supper of latkes with applesauce, sour cream, and smoked salmon, while binge watching Call the Midwife on Netflix.

I haven’t bought any mix this year, but I might, because potato pancakes are a flavor I really love, and even though it’s unseasonably warm, it is December. Tonight, in fact, is the first night of Hanukkah, which is why I’m writing about flipping lattes. (It’s way easier to do than making crepes.). Maybe I’ll even serve them with smoked salmon again.

In the meantime, I’m nursing a cold, so I’m going to curl up in bed with tea and a good book.

 

Holidailies 2015

Back Roads

Back Roads We took the back way to the restaurant tonight, because it was a busy hour and we didn’t want to get bogged down in freeway traffic.

Life here in Outer Suburbia seems so cluttered with housing tracts and strip malls that I forget, sometimes, how much of the area around our town is still undeveloped. It’s only when we drive the back roads that we see the bones of the land, and are reminded that this part of Texas really is prairie, a southern extension of the same prairie we drive through in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota.


I saw a map of this region at a science museum years ago, depicting the inland sea that much of the low-lying land used to be. Ever since then, coming home from Dallas, using Loop 12 and Spur 408, I’ve seen that map in my head, and imagined that we are not driving on a highway, but rather a causeway that crosses the sea and descends into the valley floor.


Once when our marriage was young, Fuzzy and I took the back road home from Minneapolis, driving Highway 14 the whole way. We didn’t have a schedule to meet, or animals to feed, and we stopped in all the little towns on the way, including those from the Little House books I’d grown up with. He watched fondly as I dipped my toes in the remains of Plum Creek, and we ate ice cream cones in Walnut Grove.


All of my life, whenever we moved somewhere new, the first free weekend I would hop on my bike and go exploring, getting myself lost and unlost, learning the streets and shortcuts for myself, even though I was perfectly capable of reading a map.

That’s the thing about back roads.
On a map they look slow and unsavory.

But from the saddle of a bike, or the seat of a car, they become our windows into the past, whether it’s the roots of America or the deeper taproots of life itself.

Holidailies 2015

Autobiography in Pine

2004 Christmas Tree

My tree from 2004.

My autobiography will not be written on a computer, or disseminated in the form of a kindle file. It exists already in the collection of ornaments that have been lovingly cared for, some since before I was born.

My earliest Christmas memories are of decorating the tree with my mother. We would usually do this on a Friday or Saturday evening in December, with Christmas music playing in the background, and both of us singing along, my mother with… great enthusiasm.

As each ornament came out of the layers of tissue paper, my mother would tell me the story of where it came from. “This is the Santa Claus your grandfather brought home from Germany after the war,” she would say, or “this was attached to your very first Christmas present ever.”

Every year, our collection would increase by an ornament or two, usually as a souvenir of somewhere we went, or something we had done. As I grew older, the ornaments began to reflect my interests as well. The ice skates (both Mom and I love skating) were joined by books, hats, and an array of musical instruments. When Fuzzy proposed to me over my Christmas visit to South Dakota, my mother’s initial response was congratulatory, and then wistful: “I guess I’ll have to wrap your ornaments separately this year.”

Twenty Christmases later, my collection of ornaments has grown exponentially. Our first tree was barely full, and the tree we had in our condo was three feet tall and in a pot. This year, we have a pre-lit plastic tree with seven million tips (this may be an exaggeration) that is seven and a half feet tall (that is not an exaggeration), and I still feel like there aren’t enough branches.

Last year, my mother sent some of her collection to me; she was downsizing to accommodate her smaller house and slightly advanced age (she’ll be 66 in February), and it was a kind of virtual reunion, seeing some old favorites and meeting some new pieces from her life in Mexico.

I’ve never done a count of all my ornaments – there are more than a hundred and less than five thousand – but I know when one is missing, as if a paragraph or a chapter was accidentally deleted from a favorite novel.

My ornaments are my story, my autobiography, told in red and green, wood and glass, and set against a background of pine.

Holidailies 2015

Counting Days

I can’t remember a year when I didn’t have an advent calendar.

For most of my life, these tangible countdowns to Christmas were simple affairs: a pretty, seasonal picture (sometimes religious, sometimes not) with perforated doors, one for each day. You wuld fold open the flap, and inside would be another picture, an inset of the greater image, perhaps, or an enhancement. One of my favorite calendars had an image of a Christmas tree in a Victorian bay window, and every door added an ornament.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about advent calendars with ‘stuff’ in them. Now, usually this ‘stuff’ consists of cheap, waxy milk chocolate, but apparently there are some that come with toys, as well. When I learned about them, I spent five minutes feeling gypped, and then I realized I liked the old-school version where the only treasure hidden behind the open door was my own imagination, sparked by the ever-dwindling number of days until the Big Event.

Of course, we count days throughout the year, not just during advent, not just in December.

We make red Sharpie x’s across the calendar squares that march us toward the next deadline, the next paycheck, the next special occasion, the next vacation.
We open our own doors and windows, and we find whatever life offers, and some days it’s as precious as a baby in a bed of straw, and other days it’s the manure from the ox in the corner, but we keep on counting.

Counting up: I’m five, ten, sixteen, twenty-one, thirty, forty-five.
Counting down: Christmas, the new year, Valentine’s Day, tax day, another birthday.

I read about my friends who have advent calendars with pockets that hold treats for their children, and I’m wistful for the days when I was innocent enough to believe marking a day on a calendar, picking a toy out of a pocket, burning the candle down to the next mark, held some kind of special magic.

And maybe, just maybe, they did.

And maybe, just maybe, recent years have led me toward virtual Advent calendars like #musicadvent, or Holidailies, or even the collection of poetry my friend Jancis is doing on his tumblr account because that’s the grown-up way of opening a door and finding a prize to help you count the days.

Holidailies 2015

Bolero

1984. The Winter Olympics. British ice dancers Torvill and Dean nearly melt the ice with their passionate performance to Ravel’s Bolero. It makes ice dancing sexy. It takes the world by storm.

I was thirteen, watching the Olympics with my mother. We both love ice skating, and used to make televised ice shows into appointment viewing. Once I was old enough to have a real income, treating Mom to skating shows at the Shark Tank in San Jose became a tradition. One year, we even had seats on the ice.

1986, my junior year of high school. I’m sitting in my Humanities class watching a video of Zubin Mehta conducting Bolero. He’s wearing rehearsal clothes. Black, I think. A t-shirt or a turtleneck. Or maybe it’s just a blazer. A classmate (whose name I won’t mention because it’d be wrong to name-drop during Holidailies) says aloud what I’ve been thinking: Conductors are so sexy.

2002. I’m flipping channels and a half-remembered video is playing on PBS. I saw it once when I was much younger. Dinosaurs marching to extinction to the familiar Ravel composition. Bolero.

2014.  I’m in my mother’s rental house in Mexico, the one across the street from the house they were building –  the one they moved into in May.  The wind is high and I am watching hawks circle the cardon cactus, their circles looping higher and higher as the currents change. I’m starting a new story for a fiction community I belong to. My inspiration comes from the hawks and the music from my ipad: Bolero.

2015. I bought a guitar for my birthday, but all year I’ve also been falling back in love with my cello. I decide to challenge myself. #MusicAdvent wants an alphabetical list this year.  I decide to see how many of my choices will feature the cello.  Today is Day 2.

I choose Bolero.
Played by 4 cellists.

Back to December

December has come to mean two things to me: Holidailies and #musicadvent.  Both begin today.

The first CD I ever bought was Yo-Yo Ma & Bobby McFerrin’s collaborative album Hush.  There isn’t a cellist my age who didn’t grow up following Ma’s career, and McFerrin was just becoming popular when I was a freshman in high school. To me, the pair of them represent some of the best of my musical memories from those four years.

Hush is also the album I come back to, over and over.  Just as I do with favorite novels, I find new things in it every time it resurfaces. Originally, my favorite pieces were the eponymous Hush, and the Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3, but lately it’s the Ave Maria that really speaks to me, maybe because there’s such peace in that song – the kind of peace you need at the beginning of December so that you stay calm and strong throughout the month of craziness and busy-ness and inevitable crankiness.

The entire album, though, is just lovely. The combined talents of these two men draws you in and makes you focus on the music first and the musicians second, and while it’s grounded in classical music, it pokes fun at the serious tone of the genre, and softens itself with lullabys.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is also a writer in which I explained that I think in music.

At this time of year, when I go back to these two projects, I’m really going back to the Decembers of my youth and celebrating themm in song and story.

Today’s Song::

Ave Maria (Bach/Gounod) as performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin on the album, Hush.  (audio only) :

Grandpa K’s Turkey, Stuffing, and Gravy Recipe

I originally posted this on 22 November 2006, and I have the original, typed, hardcopy provided by my grandfather, but I like to re-post it from time to time. Therefore, I present this again, in case anyone needs it, and because (American) Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away.

Turkey, Stuffing and Gravy Recipe
by Edward F. Klindienst

INGREDIENTS

  • Turkey and giblets
  • 1/2 to 1 lb. bacon (sliced)
  • 8 medium or 6 large onions
  • 1 bunch celery
  • 8 apples
  • 2 oranges or tangerines
  • 1 loaf stuffing bread (unflavored, pullman size)
  • Salt, pepper, and pumpkin pie spice
  • Optional: Cider or wine for stuffing

UTENSILS

  • Roasting pan (large turkey size)
  • Rack to fit inside pan
  • Aluminum foil (wide)
  • Collander
  • Basting syringe
  • Stock pot, 2qt or larger
  • Large pot (optional, about 6qt)
  • Frying pan with fitted lid
  • Steel skewers (4 inch) [Turkey lacing kit]
  • Knives, peeler, etc.
  • PROCEDURE
    Note: The following procedure, and the list of ingredients are the basic recipe. After you have tried it once or twice, try some modifications – change the flavoring, adjust the quantities, add things like mushrooms, raisins, a dash of garlic, let your palate be your guide…enjoy it.
  • STUFFING MIX
    • Bacon: Lay bacon on cutting board and cut across the slices in 1/4 inch strips. Fry the bacon in covered fry pan over low heat.
    • Onions: Peel and chop all but two of the onions. Place chopped onions in fry pan with bacon. Keep covered. Place remaining two onions in stock pot.
    • Celery: Cut the butt off the celery and place butt in stock pot. Separate and wash the stalks, save the tender heart for the table, chop remainder and add to fry pan. Put leaves and trimmings of celery in stock pot.
    • Apples: Peel and core apples. Add peels and cores to stock pot. Slice apples into fry pan and cover.
    • Flavoring: Add two level teaspoons salt, 1/8 teaspoon black pepper (or less, according to taste) and two generous teaspoons pumpkin pie spice to fry pan, stir well, cover and let simmer till apples reach consistency of apple sauce.

    Note: The less lifting of the fry pan lid, the juicier the stuffing mix.
  • THE BIRD
    • Remove neck and giblets from cavity.
    • Remove skin from neck. Discard skin. Add neck to stock pot.
    • Remove fat from heart and gizzard. Place heart, tail (if present) and gizzard in stock pot.
    • Do not add liver to stock pot, either discard it, or cook it and feed it to the dog (or cat).
    • Wash the beast in cold water, inside and out, both cavities. Remove all inedible items, if any. Remove any pin feathers left in the skin. Set the bird aside, let it thaw.
  • THE STOCK POT
    • Cover the contents of the stock pot with water and place over high heat till it boils, then reduce to medium or lower heat (just enough to sustain slow boiling).
    • Add remaining onions while waiting for the boil.
    • Cut oranges or tangerines in halves, squeeze juice into stock pot, and drop in the rest.
    • Add 1/2 teaspoon salt./li>
    • Add water as necessary to keep contents covered.
    • Cook till meat is loose on neck bones. When cooked, lift out meat (neck, heart, gizzard, and tail) set aside for “picking.”
    • Strain contents of stock pot through collander, pressing out all fluid. Save fluid for basting, discard pulp.


Note: Experimentation with flavoring at this point also pays dividends.
The basting fluids become the gravy.

  • BREAD
    • Cut bread into 1/2 inch cubes, including crust.
    • Place in roasting pan and bake in hot oven till dry and slightly brown, stirring occasionally. (A bag of unflavored croutons can be substituted for the bread.)
    • When bread is ready, pour into large pot, and add contents of fry pan. Mix thoroughly. If too dry, add fluid from stock pot, or a cup of cider, or after some experience, a cup of wine. (Caution is recommended with the wine, but the results are worth the trouble sometimes.) [MissMeliss says: I recommend the cider, actually, but if you do use wine, I’ve had great results with gamay beaujolais.)]
    • Any stuffing left over after bird is stuffed (both cavities) can be baked in a pie pan [MissMeliss says: We make extra on purpose.], etc. When both cavities are filled, close with skewers, and lace with clean string.
  • ROASTING PAN AND FOIL
    • Use two long pieces of foil (long enough to wrap over the turkey and the supporting rack).
    • Lay one piece across the pan lengthwise and press into bottom of pan.
    • Lay second piece crosswise and press down.
    • Place rack inside the foil. Place bird on rack.
    • Pour one cup of basting fluid from stock pot over bird. Wrap foil over top of bird, completely covering bird.
    • [MissMeliss says: By wrapping it this way, the roasting pan (if you’re not using a disposable one) is easier to clean, and the bird is easier to unwrap for basting.]
  • ROASTING
    • Preheat oven to 450(f).
    • Place bird in oven so it is approximately centered.
    • After 1/2 hour, reset thermostat to 350(f).
    • Cooking time on given on wrapper of the beast is usually reliable, if the bird is completely thawed.
    • If not thawed when placed in oven, fork testing is required. Beast is cooked when fork can be pushed into the flesh easily and withdrawn easily. Testing points are at the base of the wing (shoulder), thigh, and carcass under thigh (any place where meat is thick). [MissMeliss says: I know it’s trendy to cook turkey by internal temperature. The pop-up thing in a butterball is a guideline, not a rule, and the turkeys I use rarely have timers embedded. I never cook by temperature, just by fork testing – the juices should run CLEAR, btw – and I’ve never had an underdone bird or killed anyone.]
  • BASTING
    • Basting is IMPORTANT to flavor of bird, more so to flavor of gravy
    • At the end of each hour of baking , open foil and baste. Four or five syringe-fulls of basting fluid should be poured over the bird.
    • All fluid should then be picked up from bottom of pan and returned to the stock pot.
    • Then fill syringe twice and pour over bird.
    • Leave fluid in pan and close foil.
    • Return bird to oven.
    • The fluid recovered from roaster at each basting is what browns the gravy.
  • GRAVY
    • When bird is done, thicken fluid in stock pot with corn starch or flour. Amount of thickening will depend upon amount of fluid.
    • Add a little thickening at a time till desired thickness is obtained.
    • Stir well and be alert for boil-over. As soon as boiling starts, lower heat to point of slow boil. If violent boiling begins, lift pan off heat and stir vigorously.
    • Sneaky Hint: One final basting with gravy will often enhance browning of the beast.
      Sometimes produces a glazed look.

Good luck with your turkey, enjoy your meal.
Bon Appetit!!!

Poem: Monday, 4:05 PM

The reflection of the sun on the water
Is sending ghostly ripples of light
Across my windowpane,
As if I’m being visited by the visual echo of wind,
Or an aurora borealis known only to me.

A cursory glance at the pool
Shows no waves,
No movement at all from the water,
And the trees are not blowing with vigor,
But breathing gentle sighs
As their branches lift and fall
In arboreal shrugs.

In a few minutes,
The sun will sink behind the treeline.
The water will be cool and dead-looking
Instead of sunlit and alive,
And the essence of wind drawn in light
Will be gone from my view.

For now, though,
I’m content to sit here
And watch the wavy lines
Sketch temporary patterns on the glass.

It should be painfully obvious from this piece why I rarely attempt poetry. This is posted unedited, as I originally wrote it on 24 November 2008

Preferably Smooth (Gotham fanfic (microfic))

We had no internet all day yesterday, so I wrote offline and in between whiny phone calls to AT&T. Note: if you want actual help from AT&T, skip their phone tree entirely and use Twitter. Their Twitter team kicks ass.

Here, have a tiny bit of fan fiction.



 

Disclaimer: I don’t own Gotham. I’m not sure I’d want to. But it’s an interesting place to visit from time to time.


 

Fear comes in the oddest forms.

Sometimes it comes in your subordinate looking at you with her dark brown eyes, the ones that pierce your soul, and can no doubt read every single wrong you’ve done.

Sometimes it comes in the form of a gun, pointed at your head, or words hurled at your feet, each a declaration of its own kind: I’ll do anything to take you down.

Sometimes it comes in the near miss of a car zooming past as you step off the curb, or in a phone call you answer in the middle of the night, the voice on the other end of the line filtered beyond recognition.

And sometimes, one time, fear is waiting for you in your own darkened kitchen.

Surprisingly, it’s not the mook holding your bodyguard’s head, blood from the severed neck dripping on the cold tile.

No, the true form of fear, the form you never expect to make you shiver, to make your hands sweat and your breath catch in your throat…that form is wrapped in a dapper suit, and speaks to you in a voice as dusty as the top of the cabinet he’s leaning against.

“Do you have any peanut butter?”


 

Notes: I met Robin Lord Taylor at Dallas Fan-Expo last summer; he’s the sweetest person ever, as well as being kind and accessible. His line in Commissioner Loeb’s kitchen in the season two opener was delivered with JUST the right blend of menace and innocence…something only he can do. I had to do something with it.

 

Medical

A day of ups and downs – mostly downs.
Both of my husband’s parents are in hospitals today – separate hospitals, for separate reasons.
Both are facing the kinds of questions no one really wants to answer, but everyone has to.

Binge-watching episodes of ER is oddly cathartic at times like this.
Actually binge-watching ER is comforting for a lot of reasons, and like The West Wing I like having it on for background noise while I’m writing.

I like the pace of it.
The dialogue.
The rhythm.

If life were a medical drama, Alex Kingston and Anthony Edwards would rule hospitals.